On Pushkin's Genius
In the West, or at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, the idea of literary genius has fallen by the roadside in our postmodern civilization. Poetic genius is especially suspect. Every time you use the word “genius” someone labels it “problematic.” Not only isn’t any poet objectively a genius, but the idea that we need genius at all has come to be seen as reactionary, aligned with our historical past of imperialism and patriarchy. Especially dead white males are a no-no. Any talk of literary genius aligns you with the generation of Harold Bloom (1930-2019), the last of the Romantics, at the latest. So be it then!
“If you don't read deeply and you don't read in fact the best that has been written, then you don't learn how to think, and if you don't learn how to think, you get Donald Trump,” Harold Bloom says in a video interview of 2018. It is amazing to me that Bloom’s point is not obvious in today's culture, and it is no longer acknowledged even within the walls of our ivory towers. An admission: I went through a silly protracted juvenile rejection of Bloom, a sort of narcissism of small peeves and objections. When I was young and, like the rest of us, rebellious, many of his assertions struck me as banal, and I disagreed with some of his ideas about poetry. Did I need to be told that Shakespeare was very great, even greater than I suspected? Everyone knew Shakespeare was very great! Or did they? I saw Bloom as rooted in the New Critical project of evaluative reading, and I was interested in asserting my own evaluations. “Canon-mongering” (I called it) seemed like a belaboring of the obvious. Why did I need “a strong critic” (Bloom’s phrase) to define the canon for me? What I did not fully see at the time and what Bloom saw with painful clarity was the context of the cultural struggle that he and those of like mind were waging against the tidal wave of academic postmodernism (which, like they, I rejected). Bloom was not speaking to people like me, cultural outsiders; he was trying to speak to my mainstream English major campus mates who were filled with Lacanian deconstruction and Freudian historicism and were taking courses on the politics of science fiction and the history of the American comic and other such. I realize now that “Shakespeare is very great” was absolutely the right thing for Bloom to say – to shout – to them, at them, amid the ongoing cultural desertification. I am of the Harold Bloom camp now as regards the need for a canon and for genius.
For better or worse, we Russians have so far proven culturally immune to this skepticism about genius. We know that Shakespeare and Pushkin embody genius. We are taught about genius at school, with Pushkin held up as the prime example of it. This is not mere adulation, but a recognition that these poets exhibit a difference in kind from what we may call normal literary excellence. Genius accomplishes what is usually impossible for the arts to accomplish: it changes our perception of humanity and deepens our sense of the self. Humans are naturally shallow; it is art that makes us deep. Shakespeare’s “invention of the human,” to borrow yet another phrase from Bloom, consisted in creating the imaginative space for us within which the self in invested with meaning, moral complexity, and a dramatic role to play, not on stage but in life. “The whole world’s a theater.” Shakespeare awakened us our to our own “interiority”; he revealed internal monologue (think Hamlet) well before internal monologue became a fact in psychology. He deeply influenced how we perceive ourselves.
What Shakespeare did for the English, Pushkin did for the Russians a couple of centuries later. Our perception of him is also colored by the tragedy of his death in a duel of honor at the mysterious age of 37. The depth of a culture can be measured by the depth of its poetry, and in Russia, true depth starts with Pushkin. Pushkin’s work is the first Russian literature that is artistically sublime as well as philosophically and psychologically deep. I do not think it too simplistic to say that it is thanks to Pushkin that we became philosophically and psychologically deep as a nation. One of the best educated people of his time, one of the freest thinkers, and more in tune with world poetry than anyone else in Russia, Pushkin brought us to our modernity, elevated our ethical and artistic standards, and gave us a heartfelt, idealistic wisdom to live by. He made Russian history come vividly alive for us, and he taught us to crave liberty, and how to love. He modernized Russian literary language and perfected the poetic forms, achieving an unparalleled lyric purity and the most natural tone of expression. He exposed the vile aggressivity of artistic mediocrity. He both inherited Romanticism and overcame it in his mature work. He enriched ordinary speech with many colorful idioms. Reading him is edifying, it uplifts the spirit. As the poet Apollon Grigoriev famously said, “Pushkin is our everything.”
Whether or not my translations of his poems convey any of this is another matter, but I had to try.
Philip is a poet and literary scholar, including Co-Editor-in-Chief at FULCRUM: an annual of poetry and aesthetics. Read Nikolayev's new collection of Pushkin translations, The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy.